By-elections leave Turnbull stung

20 August 2018


The Turnbull Coalition Government didn’t really have a great deal to lose during five by-elections last month.  It didn’t hold any of the seats where the by-elections were taking place, so any loss wouldn’t have made a difference in terms of seat numbers in Federal Parliament.  But the results of the by-elections, which were dubbed the “Super Saturday” because of how there were on the same day, have seemingly sent the Coalition into a state of panic.

Certainly I didn’t expect much in the by-elections.  I’d felt that the by-elections probably would come and go, and leave people wondering what the fuss regarding them was about.  This was the case with some of the by-elections.  But in at least one other instance, there’s been a massive reaction.

The Labor Party held four of the five seats where the by-elections took place last month.  Indeed the Coalition didn’t bother contesting two of those seats.  Holding the last seat was a crossbench MP who got elected largely because of the popularity of another figure not of Coalition or Labor stock.

The by-elections came about because of four MPs having been deemed ineligible for when they contested the last election, in 2016, as a result of questions about dual citizenship.  Another MP quit for personal reasons.

There were concerns about voters would react to Labor regarding dual citizenship, because while this was causing politicians from other parties to disappear from Parliament after this saga broke around a year ago, Labor was adamant that none of its people had problems with dual citizenship, and that all checks were done before the 2016 election.  But with Labor people having been caught out earlier this year, Labor looked dishonest.  And with many voters still not warming either to Labor or its leader, any loss in these by-elections would’ve stung Labor.

Leaving aside the two Labor seats that the Coalition didn’t contest, the by-elections were in seats that the Coalition lost in 2016.  There was therefore interest in how the Coalition would fare, particular as opinion polls have put the Coalition behind Labor for some time since the last election.

As expected, though, Labor easily held the two seats which the Coalition skipped, namely Fremantle and Perth, both urban seats in Western Australia.

The Labor-held seat of Braddon, in western Tasmania, looked like a close contest going into the by-election, and it appeared too close on the night.  Labor ultimately held it, though there was hardly any swing.

There was big interest in another seat, Mayo, a provincial seat in South Australia which the Coalition lost in 2016 to Rebekha Sharkie, who ran in those days under the banner of popular South Australian politician Nick Xenophon and was now running almost without his influence.  The Coalition had always held Mayo since its creation until 2016.  The questions surrounded whether the Coalition could retake the seat with a candidate whose father had long it before, or how Sharkie would fare when effectively standing on her own two feet – with all due respect, Sharkie’s party looks less visible without Xenophon’s presence.  In the end, there was a swing to Sharkie, who’d narrowly won in 2016, and now the seat is fairly safe for her.  She’ll probably hold it for a very long time.

But there was a massive reaction in the last seat holding a by-election, Longman, an outer urban seat in Queensland.  Here there was a decent swing to Labor, which wouldn’t have meant much if not for a bigger fall in the Coalition primary vote, only softened because of preferences flowing well to the Coalition.

With three by-election defeats, one of them including a swing against the Coalition of some note, you’d expect that these by-elections would leave Malcolm Turnbull stung.  Since becoming Prime Minister in 2015, Turnbull hasn’t fared well among voters, at least in the opinion polls.  They’ve long been pointing a Coalition defeat when the next general election comes.  But the size of the swing in Queensland, where the Coalition has quite a few marginal seats, has made Coalition MPs panic.

Lately we’ve been seeing a revolt of sorts against Turnbull.  His leadership looks less secure as a result, though I don’t see any credible alternatives out there.

Labor would be rubbing its hands with glee in the aftermath of the by-elections, which could’ve damaged it.  The by-election vibes look like hanging around.



Spotlight again on Lindsay

13 August 2018


Voters in the Federal seat of Lindsay might well be used to the spotlight. Indeed their seat’s been under the spotlight more than once over many years.

Created in 1984, this seat lies at the foot of the Blue Mountains, on the western fringe of Sydney, taking in Penrith and surrounding suburbs.  But while it’s changed hands only four times since its creation, it’s done so three times in the past eleven years, so it looks volatile nowadays.

Of late, Lindsay has been in the spotlight because of Emma Husar, who won the seat for the Labor Party at the last election, in 2016.  She’s only a first-term MP, but at the next election she’ll be retiring, as a result of allegations against her which aren’t that helpful for anybody in her position.  If she hadn’t announced her retirement, it was possible that she’d face a challenge to her preselection as a Labor candidate.

If not for the allegations bringing Husar’s political career to an end, what prospects would there be of Labor losing the seat at the next election?

To be honest, the chance of Labor losing isn’t that great.  But given the seat’s history, you probably wouldn’t ignore the seat at election time.

After all, Labor first won the seat at its creation, in 1984, and held it until 1996.  The changing of hands in 1996 was quite dramatic, because it was considered fairly safe for Labor in those days.  At an election in that year, there was a massive swing away from Labor all over the country, resulting in one of Labor’s biggest election defeats in history.  Despite the size of the swing across the country, Lindsay shouldn’t have been considered vulnerable, because Labor’s margin in it was larger than what the election swing was.  But Lindsay fell, in one of the biggest swings in the country.

The Liberal Party won Lindsay for the first time at that election, which also marked its first Federal election win since 1980.  John Howard led the Liberals to a massive election win and became Prime Minister, holding the top job for more than a decade, until losing an election in 2007.  And Lindsay was one of the Liberal losses of 2007.

Jackie Kelly was the successful Liberal candidate in 1996.  She really was a surprise winner, because Lindsay was considered far from vulnerable for Labor.  But there were massive swings against Labor, especially in middle-to-outer suburban areas around Sydney and other big cities, where Labor lost many seats, very unexpectedly in some instances.  Lindsay was among the unexpected Labor losses.

Later in 1996, Kelly was booted out of Parliament, because of problems surrounding her eligibility to have even run as a candidate.  A by-election was subsequently held before year’s end, and there was another swing to the Liberals.

When Australians next went to the polls, in 1998, Howard was proposing to reform the national taxation system, which wasn’t exactly popular with voters.  Kelly was one of many Liberals who’d won seats in 1996 as a result of voters comprehensively throwing out Labor, but they were expected to be one-term MPs and lose their seats at the next election when it came.  Howard’s bold tax reform wouldn’t have helped them.  Because Lindsay was marginal, it was one of many seats under the spotlight.

But Kelly managed to hold her seat, and lots of other Liberals were also able to hold their seats.  Howard narrowly won the election, largely because of them.

Lindsay was again under the spotlight when the next election came, in 2001, being one of many marginal Liberal seats.  But Kelly held it again, and Howard won that election as well.  History repeated at an election to follow, in 2004.

By the time of the 2007 election, Howard’s popularity had waned.  Kelly, meanwhile, had announced her retirement.  I’d felt that the Liberals really couldn’t hold Lindsay without her – and so it proved.  Howard also lost the election.

The successful Labor candidate in Lindsay in 2007 was David Bradbury.  He was able to hold it again in 2010, as Labor narrowly survived a close election.  Many people believed that the Liberals ultimately lost the election as a result of failing to win key marginal seats from Labor, such as Lindsay.  But Bradbury lost to Liberal candidate Fiona Scott in 2013, at the same time that Labor was losing office.

In 2016, Labor regained Lindsay through Husar, but didn’t win enough seats to win the election overall.  This was the first time that Lindsay hadn’t gone with the party winning the election overall since its creation.  Now that Husar’s about to go from the political scene, her seat might be watched more closely.

Marginal seats, where it only requires a relatively handful of voters having a change of mind for a seat to change hands, invariably have the spotlight on them whenever elections come.  But sometimes, once elections have passed, the spotlight either stays on these seats outside election time or comes on them for whatever reason.  Because of the Husar affair, in a region often watched in elections, it’s again on Lindsay.

The seat will probably stay with Labor at the next election.  The Liberals currently lack the popularity needed for a chance at winning.  But the spotlight probably looks like staying on this seat because of its marginal status.


One more seat lost in South Australia

30 July 2018


The next Federal election will see an extra seat in the House of Representatives going up for grabs.  In the wake of electoral redistributions across the country, albeit not in every state or territory, the tally of seats in the House of Reps rises to 151.

Population growth in both Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory means that they gain an extra seat each as of the next election.  By contrast, South Australia has endured population decline and will lose a seat.

This represents the third instance of South Australia losing a seat in redistributions over the last three decades.  But there’s something more significant about this loss.

Population change in any state or territory always leads to a redistribution, usually every decade or so, but sometimes within a shorter period, so as to ensure that electorates have as close as possible to the same number of voters within that state or territory.  Normally redistributions result in a state or territory gaining or losing a seat, and over generations the seat tally in the House of Representatives has gone up or down by just a seat at times.

At first glance, a redistribution meaning one lost seat mightn’t mean much in itself.  The loss of a seat in a redistribution isn’t new to many states across Australia.  Indeed, New South Wales is the biggest state, yet each of its last three redistributions have led to one more seat lost, though this hardly diminishes it.

But this latest seat loss in South Australia means that its tally in the House of Reps drops below what it was in 1983, when the popular Bob Hawke became Prime Minister.

The significance of 1983 here is more than just a case of numbers.  That year was before what could be called an enlargement of Federal Parliament.  Only twice has Parliament been enlarged since its creation, ahead of general elections in 1949 and 1984.  Normally redistributions have occasionally made the number of seats in the House of Reps slightly bigger or smaller.

When Federal Parliament first sat in 1901, the House of Reps had 75 seats.  This number rose to more than 120 before the 1949 election.  It rose again, to just under 150, before the 1984 election, and it’s been at its current tally of exactly 150 since 2001.

Prior to the 1984 enlargement, when Hawke had become Prime Minister in the previous year, South Australia had 11 seats in the House of Reps.  In the enlargement this number rose to 13.  But redistributions over time have reduced the number to 11 again, and now the number will drop to 10 as of the next election.

This shows how much South Australia has declined in terms of population – or at least the voting population!  A declining population isn’t exactly a good sign for any state.

The latest redistribution in South Australia will see two seats go, namely Port Adelaide and Wakefield, while a new seat called Spence will be created.  Lying north of Adelaide, this seat will probably see the Labor Party fielding Nick Champion, the sitting member for Wakefield, as its candidate.  Another Labor politician, Mark Butler, will go elsewhere with his seat of Port Adelaide abolished.

The loss of one seat in the House of Reps doesn’t exactly make South Australia look that confidence as a state.  Maybe growth in its economic can turn this around, but its vote will continue to mean less for the time being.


Super Saturday special unlikely

27 July 2018


This weekend sees perhaps an unprecedented number of by-elections taking place right across Australia.  Five Federal by-elections are happening in all.  Are there any election enthusiasts who can recall that many by-elections being held on the same day?

While by-elections are usually seen as opportunities for voters to give governments some idea of whether or not they approve of their performance, these by-elections are rather different.  The Turnbull Coalition Government doesn’t hold any of the seats where these by-elections are taking place.  Indeed it’s not contesting two of them.  Despite this, there could be a message for the Coalition, regardless of where it’s running, though obviously any message would be clearest in the by-elections that it’s contesting.

The real question surrounds what voters think of the Labor Party, which has long been ahead of the Coalition in many major opinion polls, and holds four of the five seats with by-elections happening.  Despite being ahead in the polls, Labor still isn’t luring voters with much enthusiasm.  In the minds of voters, the Coalition isn’t exactly popular, but Labor isn’t seen as that much better.

What wouldn’t have helped Labor was that the by-elections have largely stemmed from dramas about politicians found to have dual citizenship – being citizens of both Australia and some other country.  The dramas began in the middle of last year, when the Greens lost two Senators who were deemed to be dual citizens.  Politicians from all sides were subject to suspicions of dual citizenship, and many were subsequently disqualified from Parliament for that reason.  But while the Coalition lost a number of people, Labor was adamant that it’d done everything to ensure that no Labor candidate or MP was a dual citizen.  Earlier this year, however, several Labor MPs were found to be dual citizens.

Also caught up in the drama was a crossbench MP, Rebekha Sharkie, who’d won a seat from the Coalition at the last election, in 2016.

As a result, Sharkie and three Labor MPs have been forced back to the polls.  Another Labor MP, Tim Hammond, has resigned on personal grounds – hence the calling of five by-elections for this Saturday.  It’s little wonder that it’s been dubbed “Super Saturday”, with so many people across the country having to vote.

Of the five by-elections, two are in Western Australia, specifically in the inner suburban seats of Fremantle and Perth.  The other three seats with by-elections taking place are Braddon in Tasmania, Longman in Queensland, and Mayo in South Australia.

The Coalition isn’t running in either Fremantle or Perth.  Fremantle has been in Labor hands for longer than most people can remember, and Perth has been a relatively solid seat for Labor since 1983.  While the absence of the Coalition might well trigger a jump in support for minor parties, Labor should hold both seats.

The other three seats are interesting, especially Braddon and Longman.  Labor gained both seats from the Coalition at the 2016 election.  As for Mayo, it’d long been a Coalition seat, but Sharkie won it in 2016, largely due to the popularity of the well-known Nick Xenophon, for whose party she stood.

Taking up a large part of western Tasmania, Braddon has changed hands many times over the last twenty years.  The Coalition held it continuously for many years until Labor won it in 1998.  Since then, it’s changed hands at all bar two elections.  It’s a swinging seat in a true sense, and it’s regularly watched in general elections.

Lying on the northern fringe of Brisbane, Longman has also changed hands a few times over the years.  Since its creation in 1996, it’s largely been in Coalition hands, but Labor won it for the first time in 2007 and then lost it in 2010 before regaining it in 2016.

A loss in either one of these seats would spell trouble for Labor.  Rarely do governments win seats from opponents in by-elections, as has been pointed out.

Just outside Adelaide, Mayo is one of those seats where Labor has relatively little support among voters in comparison with the Coalition.  Only a candidate like Sharkie, through the popularity of Xenophon, could’ve won over disaffected supporters of the Coalition and Labor together.  Sharkie knows that she couldn’t have won Mayo without Xenophon, but with Xenophon having gone to ground after an unsuccessful tilt at a State election, Sharkie can now show if she’s popular enough in her own right among Mayo voters.

Neither the Prime Minister nor the Opposition Leader can brag about being that popular with voters these days.  Therefore, I reckon that a Super Saturday special, as far as these by-elections go, is unlikely.  The result will probably be Labor and Sharkie winning their seats.  I’m not saying that the Coalition can’t win, especially with the seats so marginal, but I don’t expect any surprises.  The by-elections will probably leave people on Sunday morning waking up and wondering what the fuss was all about.


Belittled Bernardi still fighting

23 July 2018


The pride of Cory Bernardi would’ve taken something of a pounding during the last few months.  Having walked out of the Liberal Party early last year to start his own political party, he imagined that his party would have an impact on the Australian political scene.  But now it looks like the party won’t last much longer.

A prominent conservative, Bernardi first entered the Senate in 2006, following the resignation of Liberal stalwart Robert Hill.  He became close to Tony Abbott, before the rise of Abbott to the Federal Liberal leadership.  They remained close for years, during which time Abbott became Prime Minister.  After Abbott lost the leadership to Malcolm Turnbull in 2015, the Liberals were gradually seen as less conservative than their strongest supporters liked.  This degree of change might well have been what drove Bernardi out of the Liberal ranks.

Following Bernardi’s departure from the Liberals, a new conservative party came into being.  This conservative mob ended up taking over what was left of another party regarded as conservative, the Family First Party.

Created more than a decade ago, Family First won a few parliamentary seats over the years.  Its first seat was in the South Australian Parliament in 2002.  A few years later, it won a seat in the Senate, with Steve Fielding elected in Victoria.  It continued to have a presence in the South Australian Parliament for more than a decade, and while Fielding lost his Senate seat in 2010, it wasn’t out of the Senate for very long.

In 2013, the party won a Senate seat again, with Bob Day elected in South Australia.

Day held his seat at the most recent Federal election, in 2016.  But when that year ended, he was gone from the scene.

Before entering Parliament, Day had established a massive construction business and was very wealthy, although he had to let go of ownership of the business when running for Parliament.  In the second half of 2016, Day’s business collapsed, and Day felt that he couldn’t stay in Parliament because of this.

But before long, Day went back on his resignation, saying that someone had been willing and able to provide funds to keep his business afloat.

However, another scandal broke, surrounding his electoral office, and that caused his disqualification from Parliament, via a court ruling.  All politicians have their own electoral offices, where they do work for constituents when they’re not actually sitting in their parliamentary chambers.  Federal politicians, when they don’t attend Parliament in the national capital, go back to the states where they are based, and they do constituency work from offices in them.  In the case of Day, his issue was having his electoral office in a building owned by his former business – he therefore got public funds from a governmental body which rented out an office within that building, and this was a conflict of interest.  This ended Day’s career.

With Day gone from politics, Family First disappeared soon after.  The remaining politicians in that party, and various resources, ended up joining Bernardi’s new conservative party.

Ironically, someone who declined to join Bernard’s party was the person running behind Day on the Family First Senate ticket in South Australia in the 2016 election, Lucy Gichuhi.  After Day was disqualified, the Senate vote in South Australia from that 2016 election was recounted, and Gichuhi, the second Family First candidate, was declared the winner.  But with Family First no longer existing when Gichuhi entered the Senate, she sat as an Independent.  She’s since joined the Liberals.

At the start of this year, Bernardi might’ve thought that his party could win some seats at pending elections, including in his home state of South Australia.  By then, his party had two seats in the South Australian Parliament, and one of those seats went up for grabs when a general election was held in South Australia in March.

But at that election, his party lost that South Australian seat, having won a rather small share of the statewide vote.  In the aftermath of the election, the remaining State MP in Bernardi’s party, Dennis Hood, defected to the Liberals.  One wonders whether Family First might’ve been considered an offshoot of the Liberals.

These recent events have almost certainly left a belittled Bernardi.  But he’s still around the political scene and fighting.  Because he was a Liberal candidate going into the last Federal election, and one of the first Senators elected, he won’t face voters again until the election after next, due in about 2022.  The bad luck bearing down on him could wear off before then, but he no longer seems like the political force that he might’ve envisaged himself as.


Upper hand helps Hodgman

21 July 2018


Having enjoyed a general election win in March, albeit not by much, Tasmanian Premier Will Hodgman continues to enjoy good fortune.  Since that election, he’s enjoyed another election win of sorts, and boosted his parliamentary numbers.

To understand this, it’s worth bearing in mind that the Tasmanian Parliament looks, to some extent, like an upside-down version of its counterparts in other Australian states, though not all of them, as well as Federal Parliament.  It has two chambers, namely the House of Assembly and the Legislative Council – the former being where governments are made, as is the case with its counterparts.  But elections for these chambers look like their counterparts in reverse.

Members of the Legislative Council, or MLCs for short, are spread across fifteen divisions around Tasmania.  They’re elected in the same way that people are elected to the House of Representatives in Federal Parliament, for example.  On the other hand, elections for the Assembly are like elections for the Senate in Federal Parliament, using proportional representation based on support across a bigger region than just a cluster of suburbs.

The difference from other parts of Australia is that, in Tasmania, the Council is the Upper House of Parliament and the Assembly is the Lower House, so the way to win seats here is like an upside-down version of elsewhere.  The Upper House arrangement of single-member seats, won by obtaining a majority of the vote in a seat, is what you find in the Lower House of Tasmania’s parliamentary equivalents elsewhere, as well as in Federal Parliament, where the House of Representatives is the Lower House.  On the other hand, the Lower House arrangement in Tasmania, of multi-member seats which are filled on the basis of a party’s strength across a region, rather than a strict majority, is what you find in the Upper House of Tasmania’s parliamentary equivalents elsewhere.  Tasmania basically has Upper House seats won by majority vote and Lower House seats won by proportional vote, whereas elsewhere it’s the reverse.

But the differences don’t end here.  General elections in Tasmania, such as what took place in March this year, are only for the Lower House, and they usually happen every four years.  On the other hand, Tasmanian MLCs face voters on a cyclical basis every year, specifically during May.  You get a handful of MLCs going to the polls at a time, while election cycles usually last a number of years.

Interestingly, when electoral redistributions take place in Tasmania, MLCs sometimes find their seats abolished.  But this doesn’t end their careers on the spot.  Instead, they are allocated seats – sometimes there can be two MLCs sharing one seat, while a newly-created seat lies vacant until its scheduled election, whenever that comes.

Indeed there was an electoral redistribution in Tasmania last year.  One Independent MLC, Greg Hall, found his seat of Western Tiers abolished.  Having last faced the voters in 2012, he was due to face them again this year.  As such, he was put in another seat, together with another MLC, until the time when he was due to face the voters.  This arrangement is common in Tasmania.  In the end, Hall ended up retiring.

In terms of MLCs facing the voters this year, there was only one current MLC facing them, specifically an Independent in Hobart.  The Liberal Party, which had won power back in 2014, contested this election in Hobart, but the Independent won.

There was also an election in a new seat called Prosser, in eastern Tasmania.  It was where Hodgman got another win – or an Upper hand, if you like!  Here the Liberals ended up winning, so an extra parliamentarian helps Hodgman.

The general election win in March would have been encouraging enough for Hodgman, now into his second term as Premier.  But another win is always welcome.  The fortunes will probably smile on Hodgman at least until the next Upper House election next year.


Rural decline shown in lost seats

15 July 2018


The large electorates of Barwon and Murray cover much of western New South Wales.  Certainly Barwon is the more vast of these two electorates in the State Parliament, but Murray isn’t exactly that small.  Mind you, the electorates border each other now, although two decades ago they didn’t do so.

Back then, around this time in 1998, Barwon covered a large region in the state’s north, and Murray covered a large region in the state’s south-west.  Now Barwon stretches from the north to the west, while Murray covers a larger region than what it did in 1998.

These electorates, to no small extent, show how much regional NSW has declined in terms of population since 1998.  Indeed going back to 1998, a general election was held in NSW the following year, and an electoral redistribution took place before it.  That redistribution saw Murray abolished, along with a neighbouring electorate, Broken Hill, and a new electorate called Murray-Darling was created, while Barwon became bigger.

In order to understand this decline in the regional population in NSW, I include three other electorates in this context – Burrinjuck, Lachlan, and Murrumbidgee.

Together with Barwon and Murray, as well as Broken Hill, these six electorates covered a decent chunk of NSW in 1998.  Today, only Barwon and Murray exist today, with the other electorates abolished in subsequent electoral redistributions.

Admittedly, there are three other electorates still around today which were mixed with these five back in 1998, but I exclude them because they still exist – I refer here to Albury, Dubbo, and Wagga Wagga.

As mentioned, Murray actually didn’t exist for some years after 1998, because there was an electoral redistribution around that time before a general election coming in 1999.  Broken Hill was also abolished, while emerging was a larger electorate called Murray-Darling.

Since that election in 1999, there have been four elections in NSW, with electoral redistributions ahead of two of them, in 2007 and 2015.  And both redistributions saw one less electorate in this large part of NSW.  Before 2007, a redistribution abolished Lachlan.  Before 2015, there was again one less electorate out there, albeit not as clearly.

That pre-2015 redistribution saw Murray-Darling abolished, together with both Burrinjuck and Murrumbidgee.  There was again an electorate named Murray following this redistribution, along with an electorate named Cootamundra.

As for Barwon, it’d grown quite a bit in the pre-1999 redistribution.  And of course it grew bigger in the next two redistributions, to the point where it now stretches from the state’s north to the state’s west.

Politically, the Nationals have copped the brunt of the lost electorates in these redistributions, holding most of those abolished ones.  And they actually hold those electorates existing there today.

Back in 1998, the Labor Party only held Broken Hill.  After it was abolished, Labor managed to win Murray-Darling in 1999, but lost it to the Nationals in 2007.

While Broken Hill and then Murray-Darling had been relatively solid for Labor over time, the Nationals ended up representing the regions that they covered.

While there’s clearly been a rural decline in NSW, as shown through these lost seats, there was an irony in the pre-1999 redistribution.  Usually with electoral redistributions, rural seats disappear and new urban seats emerge.  But in 1999 there were actually more urban seats disappearing than rural.

The declining population in rural NSW, like in other states, shows in the declining number of parliamentary seats.  This trend looks like continuing for a while yet.


Leader’s by-election boost

17 June 2018


The closeness of a general election can leave a leader governing with a majority of one legislative seat, or maybe two seats.  Sometimes the leader doesn’t even enjoy the luxury of a majority, and needs crossbench support to govern.

But there was one instance of a leader coming out of an election with the barest of majorities, until the leader’s party managed to win a by-election for a seat held by some other party.  This by-election win boosted the leader’s majority, and after this boost, the leader didn’t look back.

However, I’m being cheeky here – this isn’t a prediction that the Turnbull Coalition Government, which won the last election by two seats, will win any one of several by-elections about to held in seats that its rivals hold.

Instead, this is a recollection of the fortune of Bob Carr, who was Premier of New South Wales from 1995 to 2005.  He led the Labor Party to victory by a single seat at an election in 1995, which wouldn’t have been comfortable for either Labor or him, but Labor’s gaining of a seat in a by-election the following year enabled him to breathe easier, and he went on to comfortably win two more general elections and rack up a decade as Premier before retiring.

Perhaps ironically, a Federal election set in train Carr’s by-election boost.  In early 1996, several State MPs in New South Wales switched to Federal politics, which in turn caused by-elections in State seats.  It was a traumatic time for Labor, as John Howard became Prime Minister with a huge win over Paul Keating, who led Labor to one of its biggest Federal election defeats in history.  But Labor got a boost from one of the State by-elections taking place in NSW because of the switches.

The by-election boost was in Clarence, a seat in northern NSW, taking in Grafton and surrounding areas.  Ian Causley, a National who’d taken the seat from Labor in 1984 upon the retirement of former minister Don Day, resigned to contest the Federal election.  He ran against Labor MP Harry Woods in the seat of Page, and won.  He was among countless new MPs in the Liberal-National Coalition.  But his old State seat was subject to a by-election after he departed for Federal politics.

Having been elected to Federal Parliament in 1990, Woods probably still had much to offer Labor when he lost his seat.  As such, he became the Labor candidate for the Clarence by-election, held to replace Causley.  And he won that by-election.

That victory by Woods was the boost for Carr.  He’d become Premier by arguably the narrowest of margins at an election in NSW the previous year, winning by one seat.  This meant that one resignation or death or change of mind could possibly cost Carr his majority, or even put him out of office altogether.  But Woods, with his victory in the Clarence by-election, increased Carr’s buffer to three seats.

At the 1995 election in NSW, Labor won fifty seats out of ninety-nine up for grabs, while the Coalition won forty-six seats and Independents won three – hence that one-seat majority for Carr.  The victory by Woods took Labor up to fifty-one seats and dropped the Coalition to forty-five seats – hence a one-seat majority increasing to a three-seat majority.  And Carr didn’t look back after that.

This story of a leader’s by-election boost came back into my head when I learned about a series of Federal by-elections to be held soon, in the wake of new problems of Federal MPs with dual citizenship arising.  When stories broke last year about MPs with dual citizenship, Labor insisted that none of its MPs had any such issues over this.  But with most of the coming by-elections triggered by Labor MPs found to be dual citizenship, Labor now has a credibility problem.

The Coalition doesn’t hold any of the seats where by-elections will take place.  But three of those seats were in the Coalition’s hands before the last election.  Two of them fell to Labor, and one of them fell to a candidate aligned with popular South Australian politician Nick Xenophon.

Victory for the Coalition in any of these by-elections will give the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, quite a boost.  With his two-seat majority, winning one of those by-elections will increase his majority.  Time will tell if it happens, but the massive boost from it could be what Turnbull needs right now.


Victoria’s games of leapfrog

4 June 2018


Victorians will go to the polls before year’s end.  A State election is coming up in Victoria in late November, and the Labor Party seeks a second term in office, having been elected in 2014 after just a single term out.  The Liberal-National Coalition, which was elected to office in 2010 but lasted one term there before losing, seeks to reverse the last result.

If the Coalition defeats Labor, it’ll be a case of two first-term governments in a row losing office.  You don’t see that happen very often.

However, regardless of who wins the next election overall, at least from the perspective of winning a majority in the 88-seat Lower House of Parliament where governments are formed, the winner probably won’t obtain a majority in the 40-seat Upper House.  While the Lower House has single-member seats where you need a majority of the vote to get elected in the seat that you contest, the Upper House has multi-member seats where you only need a proportion of the vote across a designated area to get elected.

It’s easier for Independents and minor parties to win seats in the Upper House, because they don’t require a huge share of the vote in any electorate, known in political language as a province, which has five seats.

About 16.7 per cent of the vote in a province therefore will get you into the Upper House.

There are eight Upper House provinces – five of them covering the Victorian capital city, described as metropolitan, and three of them covering the remainder of Victoria.  The five metropolitan provinces are divided to cover the west, the north, the south, the east, and the south-east.  The three rural provinces are known as Eastern Victoria, Northern Victoria, and Western Victoria.

The last State election, in November 2014, saw some minor parties win seats in the Upper House despite winning relatively few votes.  In more than one instance, a minor player actually had less votes than another minor player, but got elected on preferences.  When minor players manage to win seats with a smaller share of the vote than another minor player, it’s a case of what I call leapfrogging.  And it’s not exactly rare.

All Upper Provinces had at least one player elected, and sometimes two minor players, behind Labor and the Coalition in 2014.  But in every province, Labor and the Coalition won the most votes, albeit not always in that order, and the Greens came third.  Usually, if seats go to minor players, those finishing third would be the ones to get them, but this only happened in three of the eight provinces.

In the capital’s east and south and south-east, the major parties and the Greens won all five seats per province.  These provinces ended up being free of leapfrogging.

The other five provinces had games of leapfrog, some worse than others.

In the capital’s north, Labor won two seats while the Coalition and the Greens finished with one seat each.  The last seat went to Fiona Patten, whose party ended up finishing fifth on primary votes.  To be fair, though, both her party and the fourth-placed party ended up with roughly 2.9 per cent of the vote, so there wasn’t much in it.

In the capital’s west, the seat tally also read two for Labor and one for the Coalition and one for the Greens.  The last seat went to Rachel Carling-Jenkins, whose party finished sixth, despite another party winning more than twice as many votes.

The Shooters and Fishers won two seats, in Victoria’s east and north.  But these resulted from leapfrogging, as they finished fifth in one province and sixth in another.

But the worst case surrounded James Purcell, who grabbed a seat in Western Victoria despite finishing eleventh.  Preferences from other players got him elected.

Victoria’s last election therefore had several games of leapfrog, which many observers would describe as insulting to democracy.  Why should those with less votes win seats?

The next election might see more leapfrogging.  The minor parties know how the system works, and they’ll make use of it when they can.


Greens hardly wilting but still bothered

28 May 2018


This political year so far hasn’t been the best for the Greens.  Two months have passed since they suffered losses in perhaps their two strongest states around Australia, but the losses might only look like temporary setbacks.

Back in March, the Greens lost a seat at a general election in Tasmania, which had long been their strongest state.  Later that month, they lost a Federal by-election which had been touted as theirs for the asking in Victoria, probably their strongest state following the retirement from politics a few years ago of their Tasmanian godfather, Bob Brown.

The Tasmanian result was a bit of surprise in my opinion.  The Greens only held three seats there, but I didn’t expect them to lose any seats.  They ended up losing one seat in Tasmania’s north-east to the Labor Party.  Noting that Tasmanian elections contain five electorates with five seats apiece, and that parties win seats on the basis of the strength of their vote across each electorate, the Greens had one seat in three of those electorates, two of them around the state capital of Hobart and one of them in the less-urban north-east.  Before the election, there’d been talk that their seat in the north-east was at risk, but I felt that they’d hold it – they ended up losing it.

The Labor Party, which had lost office in Tasmania in 2014 after four years of governing in alliance with the Greens, probably had to put some distance between itself and the Greens.  The Liberal Party, which won in 2014 and won again in March this year, was able to convince voters that only it could deliver stable governance for Tasmania, and that a vote for Labor or the Greens might mark a return to the old alliance.  Labor was able to win a few seats from the Liberals in March this year, but winning an extra seat from the Greens would’ve been something of a bonus.  However, the Liberals only hold the narrowest of majorities – one seat – in Parliament.  Although Labor must win three seats to win the next election in Tasmania, this is doable.

I suspect that the Greens suffered in part because voters decided that Labor was more tolerable in terms of an alternative to the Liberals, and some bad memories of instability from the alliance before 2014 might’ve lingered.  The other issue might be that Tasmania still appears largely reliant on rural industries like farming and logging – long regarded by the Greens and environmentalists as anti-green industries if you like.  Rural voters probably see the Greens as threatening their jobs, and they hate them.

Of course, this antagonism probably goes well beyond Tasmania.  I’ve lost count of how often I’ve heard about “bushies” complaining about “greenies” threatening the existence of their jobs and livelihoods.  But the complaints also have a urban factor in them, given that, over time, city dwellers have said uncomplimentary things about farmers or other rural dwellers and how their practices appear environmentally damaging.  Debates over water management, such as the growing of thirsty crops like cotton and rice, might well illustrate this urban factor.  I’ve heard people questioning why we’re growing crops such as cotton or rice in drought-prone areas inland, but I wonder what farmers across those areas would otherwise grow, and whether those crops could be grown elsewhere.

Indeed this antagonism exists in inner Melbourne, where the Greens suffered their other loss in March.  It was a by-election for the Federal seat of Batman, long held by Labor.

The Greens had come close to winning Batman in past Federal elections, but they kept coming up short.  When a by-election happened there, after the departure of Labor MP David Feeney because of suspicions of dual citizenship, the Greens were tipped widely for victory at last.  But there was a swing to Labor.

In the wake of the by-election, and noting that Victoria is probably now the strongest state for the Greens, they were in turmoil.  How could their vote suddenly drop?

Part of the reason was that Labor had a popular candidate in Ged Kearney, the former head of the Australian Council of Trade Unions – the body that Bob Hawke headed until he entered Federal Parliament in 1980 and became Prime Minister in 1983.

As well as being known to all, Kearney made comments about mining and immigration which wouldn’t have been out of place among supporters of the Greens.  Indeed Labor has many MPs who regard mining as an environmental “evil” and who hate immigration laws designed to deter people from trying to sail to Australia on leaky boats.  But Labor has long been trapped on those issues, because they are largely popular among voters across Australia, and Labor would lose any election if opposing them.

Many inner city dwellers, such as those in Batman, are pro-environment and fervently opposed to hard lines on immigration.  They’re the ones that tend to support the Greens, though they’d previously supported Labor.

Despite these setbacks for the Greens in Tasmania and Victoria, I’d hardly suggest that they’re wilting, but they’d still be bothered.  It’s been a while since they suffered these kinds of setbacks.

But the Greens still have decent support across the country.  I think that coming elections will show it.  They’ll survive despite losing some seats.